Mission accomplished? Be careful which war you wish for. Travers McLeod

Jan 15, 2014

“We are going to hold the line, we are going to protect the borders”, Scott Morrison, Federal Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, told the 44th Federal Parliament in its first sitting week. “This battle is being fought using the full arsenal of measures”, he wrote elsewhere. Last week, the Prime Minister defended the secrecy of the ‘battle’, saying, “if we were at war we wouldn’t be giving out information that is of use to the enemy just because we might have an idle curiosity about it ourselves”.

Whatever the wisdom of Operation Sovereign Borders, Australia’s “military-led, border security operation”, if it is going be described as a military campaign we should assess it like one. When we examine military campaigns we often reflect on two interrelated questions: what is the strategy, and are the tactics appropriate and adapted to achieve that strategy? Strategy is important because it declares the intent and links ends and means. Tactics are also important. As the military theorist, Carl von Clausewitz, explained, “only great tactical successes can lead to strategic ones”.

On strategy, Operation Sovereign Borders has been explicit: “We are going to stop the boats.” In the first of the now discontinued weekly briefings, the Minister said “those seeking to come on boats” would be “met by a broad chain of measures end to end that are designed to deter, to disrupt, to prevent their entry” and “to ensure that they are not settled in Australia”.

The tactical waters have been muddied. One tactic offered but discarded was to buy the boats. Another tactic, begun by the former Government, is to ensure certain persons arriving by boat cannot be settled in Australia. A new tactic – gifting patrol boats to Sri Lanka – was announced last year. The tactic most discussed has been to turn or tow back the boats.

Determination not to comment on “on water” matters has marked the campaign. This approach, too, can be evaluated from the perspective of a military campaign. The Australian Defence Force (“ADF”) has defined information operations (“IO”) as “the coordination of information effects to influence the decision making and actions of a target audience and to protect and enhance our decision making and actions in support of national interests”.

Can this campaign be won in part through an absence of information? In 2007, Lieutenant Commander Chris Watson wrote “the key for IO is choosing to release information to the media on one’s own terms, for example as regards the timing and quantity of material released”. He described IO and “Shaping and Influencing” as “potent but underutilised tools available to government” during peacetime. The Minister appears to share this view.

One difficulty for Operation Sovereign Borders is multiple target audiences: Australians, regional governments (not least Indonesia’s), asylum seekers and people smugglers. A lack of footage from the High Seas and detention facilities also makes it problematic for actions to articulate a message in and of themselves. Those in charge would prefer no boats, and therefore no actions. No information means no boats. No boats means mission accomplished.

It is worth recalling debates in the United States during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. In 2006, then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld conceded the U.S. deserved a “D” or “D+” for its job in the “battle of ideas”. What became apparent was the moral dimension of the information battlespace. The need for accurate, regular information became paramount, informing the directive given to commanders not to put “lipstick on pigs”.

Taking stock, one might observe Australia has a strategy supported by at least one tactic, and that its information operations are under siege. This observation is made without considering whether the current strategy is the ‘correct’ one. The Jakarta Declaration on Addressing Irregular Movement of Persons, signed by Australia and 12 other countries from the region last August, and endorsed by the UN Refugee Agency, offers other approaches.

Tellingly, new members of Parliament have cautioned against ‘Fortress Australia’ in their maiden speeches, making the case for new arrivals and new markets. Clare O’Neil, Labor Member for Hotham, described how immigration has “brought more than 150 cultures” to Australia peacefully. Angus Taylor, Liberal Member for Hume, said Australia “must boldly expound and stay true to a narrative that explains the benefits of openness”, which includes a “generous humanitarian program”.

Clearly, ‘Fortress Australia’ bears multiple meanings, whether we think about trade, immigration, or border protection. But they are all related. Militarising some of the issues and some of the discourse may not be a constructive development. It may not help Australia’s diplomatic and civil-military relations. It may not help Australia’s openness to trade and immigration, which is vital to continued competitive advantage in the global economy. But as long as any government continues to treat Operation Sovereign Borders as a military campaign, we should continue to assess its strengths and failures as such.

One would hope militarisation has not been pursued in order to control the flow of information. At the end of the day there are human beings on these boats. Their “on water” stories will emerge. It just might be that many have fled countries undeniably at war to join the long list of migrants who have helped build and shape Australia for the long term.

Travers McLeod is the Chief Executive Officer of the Centre for Policy Development. He holds a DPhil in International Relations from the University of Oxford.

An edited version of this article was published in the Melbourne Age on January 14, 2014.



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